When I was younger – much younger – I was an avid Nancy Drew Mysteries reader. I think I had 20 or so of the books. My goal at the time was to read through all of them (I think there were 55 at the time). I never made that goal, but I did get one thing so much cooler – The Nancy Drew Cookbook.
It’s one of three cookbooks I received from my mom that I absolutely treasure. The other two are The Little House Cookbook (based on recipes from the Little House books) and Mom’s first cookbook, Wendy’s Kitchen Debut. I may give away or sell my other cookbooks, but I’ll be buried with these.
There was a recipe in Nancy Drew that I really wanted to try. In Chapter 6 – Album of International Recipes – I came across a recipe called “Italian Salsa di Pomodoro”. Not knowing what the Italian meant, I read the recipe anyway and figured out it was spaghetti sauce. It was so different from the sauce that Mom made (hers is a wonderful amalgamation of sauce and lots of vegetables; sometimes, she would make meatballs, too). This was just a simple unadorned sauce.
The first time I made it, I think I burned the onions. I still finished the sauce and the family gamely ate it. I’ve since gotten better.
This book was also responsible for the infamous “A Keene Soup”, or, as my family called it, Peanut Butter Soup. It was not a success. In fact, it was really gross. They’ve never let me live it down. I don’t blame them.
However, the “Old Attic Stuffed Tomato” and “Flag Cake Symbol” from Chapter 5 – “Nancy Tells Her Holiday Secrets” were pretty successful. I liked the stuffing so much that I was nibbling on it while I was making the recipe. That’s when Mom had to point out to me that eating raw sausage wasn’t a good idea.
Back to the sauce: as I progressed as a cook, I set aside this little book, but I always remembered the base of this recipe – onion, tomato, olive oil, salt, pepper, sugar – and decided to make my own sauce recipe that would be simple, quick, and versatile. I think this sauce is it. I’ve used it as a base for Red Clam Sauce, added Italian Sausage, added shrimp, made Chicken Parmesan, Lasagna, as a pizza sauce, etc. The list is extensive.
A few notes:
1. If you can’t find or don’t want to use fresh basil, you can use any other fresh herb you prefer. Just be judicious with the amount. For example, if you use too much oregano, your sauce will taste like soap. Always begin with less than you think you need. You can always add, but you can’t take out.
2. You can also use dried herbs in this recipe. Begin with 1 teaspoon and add it when you add the red pepper flakes to the onion & garlic.
3. You can add any protein to this sauce. Just add it when you add the fresh basil at the end. If it’s something like sausage, be sure to cook it before adding to the sauce. If it’s fish or shellfish, you can add it raw, but just make sure it’s cut into small enough pieces that the heat of the sauce will cook it through.
4. This recipe makes a lot of sauce. It freezes well and can be frozen for 3-4 months.
2 tbsp. olive oil
1 small onion, minced
4 cl. garlic, minced
1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes, or to taste
1 6-oz. can tomato paste
1 15-oz. can tomato sauce
1 28-oz. can whole or chopped tomatoes, with their juice
Salt to taste
Black pepper to taste
Sugar to taste
Water or vegetable broth, as needed
1 bunch fresh basil, torn into small pieces or cut into julienne
1 lb. pasta of your choice, cooked according to the package directions
1. Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the onions and garlic and sauté until the onion begins to soften, about 3 – 5 minutes. Stir frequently.
2. Add the red pepper flakes (and dried herbs, if using) and saute for another 1 – 2 minutes.
Lower heat to medium and add the tomato paste and cook, stirring frequently, until the paste begins to take on a burnt-orange color. (If the paste begins to stick to the bottom or becomes too brown, add a little water or broth.)
3. Add the tomato sauce, tomatoes (with their juice), 1/2 teaspoon each salt, pepper, and sugar. If the sauce is very thick, add some water or broth to thin it a bit. (Be careful, there will be some spatter as the sauce begins to bubble.)
Lower the heat to medium-low, partially cover, and cook for 30 minutes. Stir frequently.
4. Meanwhile, make the pasta. Cook until al dente, drain, and set aside.
5. After the first 30 minutes, take the sauce off the heat. If you like, mash down any whole tomatoes left with a potato masher and taste for seasoning.
Stir in the basil and let it simply infuse into the sauce for at least 15 minutes. If you are adding any protein, add it when you stir in the basil. Taste for seasoning again.
In general, you can serve this with any cheese you prefer (unless you’re making this into a seafood sauce; in that case, cheese is verboten), but I usually just use Parmesan.
Addendum: A quick julienne primer
In this recipe, you can most certainly simply tear the basil leaves and add them to the sauce. However, I like to cut them into a julienne. Basically cutting the basil into very thin strips.
You can use this technique for many different herbs and vegetables.
Now, it’s ready to add to your recipe.